Dir:Gregg Araki USA. 2004. 99mins.

GreggAraki is a film buff's director, one of those independent US mavericks, likeHarmony Korine, whose regular feature outings are staples of the internationalfestival circuit (it plays Toronto after its Orizzonti premiere at Venice) andultra-arthouse theatres, but register only the faintest bleeps on the radar ofthe cinemagoing masses. His biggest-budget film to date, the paedophilia-themedMysterious Skin is being billed as Araki's breakout movie. In reality,though, it is unlikely to turn anyone on to the director who is not already afan.

Sure,Mysterious Skin has a more coherent plot than, say, Nowhere or DoomGeneration; but it has the same taste for gratuitous provocation, the samestilted dialogue, the same beautiful but arid characters, the same oddlywooden, let's-make-a-movie acting style. And the fact that Araki's film-schoolposturings are pressed into the service of a big emotional tale of child abuseand the scars it leaves makes the whole experience feel a bit exploitational,like a Troma remake of Mystic River.

Butwith its in-your-face camerawork and catchy indie rock soundtrack, the film atleast has panache and attitude enough to tickle urban sophisticates with strongcinematic stomachs - especially in continental Europe, where Araki has a smallbut influential fanbase. Graphic scenes of sex and violence will challengedistributors' mettle - but Araki uses camera framing as a fig-leaf, cutting offjust above (or below) the censors' favourite organs.

Basedon the well-received debut novel of the same name by Scott Heim, MysteriousSkin tells the stories of two boys growing up in suburban Kansas. Awkward,bespectacled Brian (Brady Corbet) becomes obsessed with trying to reconstructwhat happened in the five missing hours of his life leading up to the momentwhen he woke up, aged eight, in the cellar of his house, with a nosebleed. Hegradually becomes convinced that he was abducted by aliens (there are definiteshades of Donnie Darko in this meld of memory loss and extra-terrestrialphenomena).

Meanwhile,ultra-cool Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) spends his days looking moody anddamaged, selling his ass for ready cash as a gay rent boy and hanging out withhis two friends, mini-Goth Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg) and budding queen Eric(Jeff Licon). It soon becomes clear that there is an intimate connectionbetween the two, and that the trauma which erased Brian's mental flashcard hasnothing to do with bug-eyed Martians.

InAraki's films, people do some pretty horrible things to each other, and MysteriousSkin is no exception: it runs through the variations from a brutal gay rapescene to a nasty little episode of child-on-child abuse involving a couple ofsky rocket fireworks. The effect is to freeze one's emotions, and though thereare moments of tenderness, we gradually learn not to trust them.

Butthe UFO subplot has a certain quirky charm to it, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt isalways watchable as self-destructive rebel-without-a-cause Neil.

Extensiveuse of first-person camera angles in the warmly-lit childhood flashbacks buildtension and convey the utter helplessness of the victim of abuse. But this isnot enough in itself to remove the impression that Araki is as interested inthe shock itself as is in its moral after-burn.

Prodcos: AntidoteFilms, Desperate Pictures Prod
Int'l sales:
Fortissimo Films
MaryJane Skalski, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, Gregg Araki
GreggAraki, based on the book by Scott Heim
Prod des:
Devorah Herbert
HaroldBudd, Robin Guthrie
Main cast:
Brady Corbet, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michelle Trachtenberg, Bill SageMary Lynn Rajskub Elisabeth Shue